Government IT is not just a cost to be managed

IT projects need to be more agile, but the relationship between IT and civil service leaders also needs work, says Sir Ian Magee

Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, today announced that the government will save £70m on IT expenditure after successfully renegotiating a number of contracts and awarding two new ones to SAP and Microsoft.

Efficiency savings are clearly welcome, assuming they materialise, but only seeing IT as a cost to be managed can be dangerous.

The Institute for Government’s (IfG) new report, System Upgrade? shows that most progress made by the government IT community over the last year has been in those areas where savings are easily quantified – specifically in contract renegotiations– and where the IT professionals can operate (at least initially) with relative autonomy.

Focus on cost should not come at the expense of innovation or expenditure that actually releases savings elsewhere. Using IT to save public servants and citizens time and money in government transactions – in taxes, benefits, health services and so on – is essential if the coalition is to have any hope of meeting its deficit reduction targets without major adverse impacts on service standards.

Effective IT is, in other words, part of the solution, as was noted in last week’s all-party parliamentary report on children’s homes. It found, that despite the reported £1bn spent on safeguarding children in care, police did not always know the location of children’s homes containing vulnerable wards and that there were alarming discrepancies between police estimates of 10,000 children a year going missing, and the Department for Education’s guess of just 930.

Such problems need to be tackled – but they will not be if solutions are simply conceived by policymakers and then thrown over the fence for IT professionals to deliver. The IfG has long advocated a different approach to managing projects, one where policymakers, operational managers, IT staff and (most critically) service users work together throughout the development process.

Circumstances, priorities and technologies change frequently – the best option would be a modular approach which delivers some functionality quickly and then reassesses the next priority. This so-called agile approach is now officially espoused by the government as part of its 2011 ICT strategy and it says it wants 50% of government projects to use agile principles by April 2013.

Nonetheless, our research found that this goal looks ambitious, despite enthusiasm in parts of the IT profession. Traditional approaches that initially look good value often lead to delay and vast additional expense because of constant requests for changes, also frequently deliver solutions that are already out of date by the time they arrive. However, a tendency to develop new systems has not led to more agile working; the IfG’s research suggests a relatively slow uptake of agile approaches might be due to the relationship between IT professionals and senior civil service leaders.

Agile requires real changes in departmental procurement, policy development and operational management processes, and it is not clear that government IT leaders feel sufficiently confident or supported to challenge departmental board leaders and ministers to do things differently.

Meanwhile, in my experience, many top level civil servants express discomfort about challenging IT leaders to deliver better, more responsive services, in part due to a shortage of knowledge but also due to a distinct shortage of information on chief information officer (CIO) performance. In a FTSE 100 company, it would be remarkable if the chief executive failed to have a firm grip on the organisation’s technological opportunities

Permanent secretaries might perhaps look to their new cadre of non-executive directors with relevant experience to help them develop effective metrics for measuring performance. They might also champion an agile approach themselves, rather than leaving it to CIOs to influence intra and cross-departmental behaviour.

Sir Ian Magee is a senior fellow at the Institute for Government and co-author of the System Upgrade? report

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